Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "A secret US meeting and a plan that was two years in the making"

This is how the Observer, in a 2,000-word saga that would have sent the ancient Icelanders to sleep, described Gordon Brown's revival of old Labour tax-and-spend for the NHS. Naturally, this verdict was given in a "focus" history of the preceding week. These focus pieces are an obsession of the Sunday papers, filling up lots of space and lending spurious authenticity to a thumb-sucking piece by the political editor. Most of the "facts" in these impressive-looking articles are bollocks, gleaned over a two-bottle lunch with a thirsty special adviser or a fellow member of the lobby. You have only to look around the Westminster Press Gallery dining room at Friday lunchtime to see that.

But ever since the glory days of the Sunday Times "insight" team (long gone), news desks have demanded a run-through of political events, decked out with plenty of colour and juicy stuff about "secret" meetings that the dailies miraculously missed. Sometimes these pieces read more like John le Carre than the lobby. When I was the Chancellor's press secretary, I had to help the hacks concoct these sensational accounts of events. On at least one occasion, No 10 helped with recovered memories. These focus pieces can achieve book status, and become instant history. Thus Andrew Rawnsley romanced that Blair and Brown had a row in a car returning to Westminster. Inconveniently, the BBC showed pictures of them driving off in opposite directions. Like focus groups, focus articles have had their day. They merely over-dramatise what we already know, and take up time that would be more usefully spent finding out what the buggers are really up to.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick